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Derik Cowan

July 1997

Reflections on Pride 1997

I love Gay Pride. A friend of mine recently compared Pride to our Christmas and Easter all wrapped up into one, and I think there's a lot of truth to that statement. Pride is one of the few times that GLBT people have a chance to fully express and celebrate themselves for who they are and for their diversity. Moreover, Pride gives us a chance to celebrate our victories over the past year and rest up before facing the challenges of the upcoming year.

Pride seemed a little extra special for me this year. In the end, I went to three different Pride celebrations: Northampton Pride (the first pride celebration of the year--the first Saturday of May), Boston Pride, and San Francisco Pride. I'm going to focus in this article on the first two mostly because, at the time I'm writing this, San Francisco Pride is a week in the future, and I really don't like trying to write about things that haven't happened yet, and in part because much of what I want to talk about was reflected in those two celebrations.

Northampton Pride was special to me for entirely personal reasons. As I knew that I was moving to San Francisco over the summer, it was very important to be able to spent this last Pride with my friends in the Pioneer Valley. This was augmented further by the fact that I had won the Queen of Northampton Pride pageant, and was to ride down the parade route in a convertible and perform at the rally. Naturally, it decided to pour that day, so the convertible was out of the question and I had to walk the mile-long parade route in my 5 inch heels, but I did get to perform the closing number of the rally, which was exciting. Northampton is a very special place in my mind in that, as far as I know, it is one of the few gay positive rural/small town areas in the country and one of the few gay places that is truly female-dominated. It's a great place to live. (Insert reminder for anyone considering colleges to seriously look at the schools in the area: Smith, Mt. Holyoke, Amherst, Hampshire, and UMass. All have strong GLBT student groups, and several offer large numbers of GLBT related courses and services.)

My experience at Boston Pride was perhaps less personally touching, although I did get to march with the Amherst PFLAG chapter, but rather seemed more about celebrating our gains over the past year. In many ways, Boston is the center of New England -- it is both the largest city and the capital of the most populous and central state of the six that make up New England, so it was only natural that Boston Pride was greatly a celebration of the fact that in the past year New England has become the first region in the US to guarantee that GLBT people will not face discrimination with the passage of gay rights bills in both New Hampshire and Maine in the past year. Not only that, but Connecticut is well on its way to passing a gay youth rights bill (last I heard, it was only awaiting the Governor's signature), which would be the second such legislation passed in the nation, following only Massachusetts. Speaking of Massachusetts, the current Governor Bill Weld has been constantly vocal about his support of GLBT Rights, most recently saying that he would not sign any anti-gay marriage legislation that might be placed before him. Indeed, it is far more likely that the domestic partnership legislation being considered by the state legislature will pass before an anti-gay marriage bill would pass.

With those sorts of victories throughout the region, it's hard to find any way to not rejoice. Indeed, it was clear that groups like the NGLTF were having trouble finding something to gear people up for, choosing to fight for the repeal of outdated sodomy laws still on the books in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, although they fell into disuse decades if not a century ago and have been all but superseded by later legislation. At the same point, many of these victories were hard fought and at times seemed to be losing battles. It was less than two years ago that I found myself in Maine working for the Maine Won't Discriminate campaign in an effort to stop the passage of a referendum that would not only have banned the passage of a gay rights law like the one passed there this year, but would also have repealed any municipal laws protecting GLBT rights within the state. That battle was one by mere percentage points, but in only just more than a year, Maine has a Gay Rights Law on the books.

Furthermore, as I leave each Pride celebration, I am reminded again at how far we still need to go, and that the struggle before us is even harder than the battles we have one. For no matter how many gay rights bills we push through the various legislatures across the country and around the world, we cannot remove the threat of physical or verbal abuse befalling our GLBT brothers and sisters because of who they are, nor the need that many of us have felt or feel to keep our identities in the closet in order to protect ourselves. No matter how many states pass legislation calling for the creation of Gay friendly places in schools, safe schools programs, or basic protections for GLBT students against harassment or abuse during their education process, that will not help heal the emotional scars the young man or woman who has been disowned by his or her family for his or her sexuality. And whether we see same sex marriage held up in the courts of Hawaii and begin to legally be accepted in states across the country or not, in the end that will not solve the problems faced by gay and lesbian couples as their acquaintances and relatives continue to question the legitimacy of those relationships.

I'm not saying that each legislative battle we win isn't a great victory. Clearly, it's important that GLBT people are granted equal rights and treatment under the law, for that plays its role in how people perceive us in the future, and in the present keeps those who would harm us at the arm's length of the law. But in the end, we cannot win equality as such in the courts, the state legislatures, or even Congress. We will only win equality when culturally GLBT people are viewed as equals. Now for those of you who have read this far and are thinking "oh no, he's going to give us a speech now on how we should all be normal," you either haven't read my older articles or have little faith in the constancy of my views. I do not think that in the struggle for equality, we should be forced to give up any part of who or what we are, for if we did, what we would achieve would not be true equality but rather a granting of equal appearing rights assuming we fit the mold of what someone else thought we should be.

I think the fight for equality begins inside each and every one of us. We need to first learn who we are, because until we know exactly who we are, how can we know where we are being treated unjustly? This may sound a little odd, but let me explain. When I first began struggling with my sexual identity, I decided that I must be straight with a strong attraction to men. That's clearly a ridiculous decision considering that I wasn't attracted to women, but because I thought of myself that way, I didn't need to fight against the unequal treatment of gays because I wasn't gay. The same issues can arise around gender or self performance. If a person thinks of themselves as acting "normal" or "straight," then often they don't concern themselves with the struggle for equal treatment of those who may appear more stereotypically gay or in some way transgress societal norms of dress, actions, speech, etc. But self-discovery is only the first step here. The next is not only to know yourself but also to be yourself. It's a wonderful thing to know oneself, but if that knowledge is never acted on, then it isn't really useful. We need to stand up and say, "Look at me, I'm not like you. I dress this way, I talk this way, I love this way, but you know what? I'm happy, and I've just as much of a right to live this way as you have to live your way."

And after that? Well, of course there are many things we can do--push for the passage of gay rights bills, support one another in the ways we each choose to live our lives, even involve ourselves in outreach to the straight community, giving them people who will honestly answer their questions about what it means to be gay. After all, the root of homophobia is fear, and the root of fear is often ignorance, as is the root of hate. But in the end, we can only be who we are, not compromise ourselves, and hope that as people see us, see our happiness, and see our pride, that they will come around. For in the end, a cultural mindshift cannot be worked entirely by a minority, it must be made by the majority. But until it is made, we cannot achieve complete equality.

This article has rambled all over the place, so rather than fruitlessly try to draw it into some great concluding statement, I'll simply end it with this: Gay Pride in my mind isn't inherent in being GLBT, rather it comes from pride in the way we've handled the troubles in our lives that have resulted from our gayness. Each year as I go out to Pride festivals, I find that my pride grows -- I'm proud that I made it yet another year, that I survived the verbal harassment I faced because of my manner of dress, that I successfully took a new gay political organization at Amherst and made it into a thriving power on campus in two short years, that I managed to graduate without the help of my parents who disowned me because I was gay, and that I'm now ready to move on to the next place in my life, comfortable with myself and eager to face the next challenge.


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